Resolving Disputes Between Business Partners Related to Unfair and Uneven Workload Distribution

Resolving Disputes Between Business Partners Related to Unfair and Uneven Workload Distribution

When partners start or buy a business they often don't think of things that could go wrong. However, when things do go wrong, the adverse effects on the business and relationships can be substantial.

From my experience, one of the most common reasons for partnership disputes is an uneven and unfair workload distribution when one partner believes that he or she puts more hours into a business than the other. This type of conflicts generally does not happen at the beginning of business relationships but may become apparent as the business progresses. It may also be a result of changes in business circumstances that can create more work for one party and less work for another.

Cast study of a partnership dispute 

To illustrate how unequal and unfair workload distribution had progressed, here is a case study of a small food manufacturing company

Two partners, Amy and John (not their real names), long term friends who also worked in the same industry for a long time, decided it was a time to go on their own. They borrowed funds, agreed on the business structure, responsibilities, strategy, spending, and everything else they could think of at the time. They also decided that Amy will be focusing on sales and marketing, and John on the manufacturing and HR. All other roles were outsourced to subcontractors and freelancers.

The business picked up surprisingly quickly, and in the first few years, they built a substantial distribution of their products, wholesaling them to stores and selling online directly to consumers. As the business developed, they decided to change their distribution strategy by supplying products to a few distributors who would then re-sell them to stores, instead of supplying to hundreds of stores by themselves, so the distributors would place large orders and less regularly. They also made another decision to outsource marketing to a third party. As a result, John's workload increased, and Amy's workload decreased

So John, who looked after manufacturing and HR, started feeling that he worked harder than Amy. Did he bring it up with her? No! Why? He thought that if he did, this would cause conflict between them, and he would lose the argument because they agreed on their respective responsibilities in the past. Besides, Amy was more articulative than him, so when she wanted to prove someone wrong, she could do so easily. He thought there was no point of starting an argument knowing in advance that he was going lose. However, avoiding conflict did not resolve it, and their relationship began to deteriorate

Luckily for him, Amy started the conversation herself as she acknowledged that their workload was not distributed equally. After a long discussion, they found a simple yet powerful resolution by agreeing to swap roles every three months

How to prevent partnership dispute related to uneven and unfair workload?

It is important to remember that when business circumstances change, the workload of business partners can change as a result. It is also worthwhile to discuss in advance with your partner what you can both do if changes take place.

Here some questions that you can ask each other.

1. What should we do if one of us will be unable to perform the role that we agreed on due to change of circumstances such as pregnancy, children starting school, commitments outside of a business, sickness, and so on?

2. What should we do if one of us will not perform the role up to the standards that we both agree to be acceptable? 

3. What happens if we have opposite views on strategy, spending, hiring and firing, operations, and so on? Should we try to resolve it first? If not, should bring a third party to help reach a decision?

4. What should we do if one of us decides to exit the business? 

I would recommend recording these conversations as you may need to refer to them in the future. I would also recommend getting legal and accounting advice, especially when you discuss business structures and exit strategies. 

Steps to resolve a dispute related to unfair and uneven workload distribution 

It can be an unpleasant experience starting and managing a difficult conversation. So here are the steps you can take that will increase your chance of reaching a mutually beneficial solution.

1. Prepare by anticipating your business partner's response.

Preparation for the purpose of having a difficult conversation means that you should try to anticipate your business partner's reactions to your allegations. Are they going to understand your concerns and be willing to make changes? What they don't? What if you get the blame instead?

Once you have thought of the possible reactions, think of your possible responses. 

2. Choose time and location wisely.

Choose a time when neither of you will get interrupted so that you can focus on the topic and move through all the steps efficiently. It is best to have this conversation outside of work for the purpose of making it less formal and less stressful. 

3. Acknowledge what you both done well in the business.

Take a look at successes that you have achieved together and acknowledge each other's effort. For example, you may have hired a good staff member, discovered an excellent productivity tool, finally found a good web developer, made a smart decision to move to a new office, found a great accountant, and so on.

4. Avoid blame.

As you began with a positive start, hopefully, your business partner is in a good mood! Now it's time to bring up the issue.

Do not blame your partner or yourself, blame circumstances or a third party. This tactic will help to separate emotions from facts, and positively focus on making changes together.

For example, the partner in the food manufacturer's case study who experienced an increased workload could have brought this issue something like this: 

"The new distribution strategy is working well, and I am glad that we decided to go to this why. Let's discuss how our workload has changed because of it and what we should do about it."

"I know we've decided to work with distributors instead of supplying products to shops directly, so you may have noticed that our workload has changed."

So John would be saying their workload has changed instead of saying that his workload has increased.

5. Listen effectively and avoid questions starting with "why".

Listening effectively is different from listening; it means that you need to "hear" what the other person is saying, not just listen to what they are saying. Use questions like "so you are saying that...", "It seems like...", "it sounds like...", and repeat what they have said, either in their words or your own, showing that you care and are listening to what they are saying. Also use open body language, for example, eye contacts, arms unfolded, etc.

When you are having a conversation that is difficult already, the last thing you want it for the other party to be defensive, inflexible and hard to deal with. By asking questions starting with "why", you are putting the other party "on the stand" which will make them defend themselves and justify their actions or choices. There is nothing wrong by asking "why", but not when you are having a difficult conversation. Simply replace "why" with "can you tell me more" or "can you tell me what makes you feel this way".

6. Discuss the resolution.

Discussing the resolution should be the last step because if you start looking for resolution at the beginning of your discussion, there is a 50/50 chance that conversation will not go the way you want it to go. Leaving it till last will not only increase the likelihood of a successful resolution, but also the resolution may even be reached during one of the previous steps.

7. Take note of your decision.

This does not mean that you need to "seal the deal", and you don't even need to send an email to your partner summarising the conversation. Record the decision for yourself in maybe a notebook on your phone so that you can refer to it if you need to. 

To summarise, the best way to resolve a dispute related to an unfair and uneven workload distribution is to prevent it in the first place by discussing what could go wrong and how you and your business partner should go about it. If you haven't discussed it, and conflict is in progress, then have this difficult conversation by following the steps above to increase the chances of a successful outcome: prepare by anticipating your business partner's response; choose time and location wisely; acknowledge what you both done well in the business; avoid blame; listen effectively and avoid questions starting with "why"; discuss the resolution and take note of your decision.


Amelia Priest

Conflict Resolution Practitioner at Resolution Matters

Amelia is a Nationally Accredited Mediator specialising in business and commercial disputes. She has over twenty years of business experience across start-ups, FMCG, distribution, online retail, import/export, franchising and manufacturing. Her passion is to assist people in resolving disputes and finding solutions to move forward. Amelia holds a Bachelor of Education, Master of Business Administration and she is pursuing a Master of Laws in Dispute Resolution.